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The art of the possible

Leading Change for Better Human Services Solutions


With budget cuts driving fewer resources and the economic downturn creating increased demand, human services leaders must continue to develop human services solutions to deliver programs with the resources they have. This pressure—and the media attention that covets headlines about tragedies over stories of triumph—can be overwhelming.

Yet there is optimism among human services leaders despite these challenges. Today’s environment is cultivating a new breed of adaptive leaders and human services consulting approaches. As these leaders break through traditional barriers to build capacity through outcome-oriented business models and family-centered approaches, they are driving new human services solutions.

This article was originally published in the June 2012 issue of Policy & Practice. It was co-authored by Antonio M. Oftelie, executive director of Leadership for a Networked World and fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University; Julie Booth, managing director, North America Human Services, Accenture; and Tracy Wareing, executive director, American Public Human Services Association and reflects insights shared by human services leaders who attended the 2011 Human Services Summit: The Pursuit of Outcomes, which was held at Harvard University in October 2011.


Adaptive leadership is a stark contrast to the leadership style prevalent in human services a decade ago that managed inputs and outputs in an institutional and bureaucratic environment where preserving the status quo was paramount. This transactional leadership model is ineffective today.

Ron Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School, has pioneered the concept of adaptive leadership1. This concept can be applied to human services where “adaptive challenges” arise from driving change across two dimensions. The first is “technical innovation,” which involves typical changes that organizations and people experience when making incremental changes within existing structures. The second is “organizational innovation,” which is atypical change that requires new roles, capabilities and competencies within a new paradigm.

1 Leadership on the Line—Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.


Adaptive leaders are well positioned to create cultural norms, tangible plans and expectations that continuous improvement and transformative change will occur. Adaptive leaders set up and use systematic mechanisms for monitoring progress, impacts and lessons learned, creating a “learning organization” to drive outcomes. Adaptive leaders adhere to several fundamentals:

•   Know the organization
•   Forecast the future
•   Break down barriers
•   Be disruptive
•   Be agile to get to the end game
•   Empower the organization
•   Sense and respond

There are also variations in the adaptive leadership style. Leaders may lean towards one of these, but there is often fluidity among them:

1.  Silo smashers. Silo smashers take the big picture view of the entire human services community of interest rather than having a myopic view of their own agency.

2.  First movers. First movers know that sustainability requires pioneering spirit that spurs renewal and embraces risks.

3.  Future drivers. Future drivers look to the horizon. They want to understand why things are the way they are and address problems at the root.


To make a lasting impact in human services, adaptive leadership must move beyond the top of the organization chart. Sustaining its value means “giving back the work” to everyone—embedding this spirit across the organization and addressing resistance by confronting its non-constructive forms with conviction. The adaptive model involves co-creating solutions and making it possible for stakeholders and partners to process change, add competencies and give up old ones in a protected environment.

Adaptive leadership must be a one-leader-at-a-time approach where the art of the possible ultimately becomes a part of an organization’s DNA.